Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Antler Banter: Season 1, Volume 6

The Banter returns tonight as there are less stories with the Calder Cup Finals winding down, but more intrigue as things are heating up off the ice with coaching moves, potential player moves, and more. Hopefully you signed up to watch the AHL Calder Cup Finals for free thanks to the great people at the AHL, but we'll highlight what's been happening in that series between Utica and Manchester as one of those two teams will win their first Calder Cup in franchise history. We'll take a peek at the goaltender backing up Ben Bishop in Game Three and, according to reports, may start Game Four of the Stanley Cup Final. The coaching carousel continues as well, so let's not put this off any further. It's Antler Banter time!

Calder Cup Finals

Game Three of the Calder Cup Finals is underway right now as I type this, and Utica needs to rally on home ice after dropping the first two games in overtime in Manchester by 3-2 and 2-1 scores. Home-ice advantage is huge in any series and Utica could put pressure on the Monarchs as the next three games are in Utica before the series shifts back to Manchester for Games Six and Seven. Of course, if Manchester wins two more games in Utica, that home ice thing means little, but it will be interesting to see if Utica can use home ice to get back in the series.

Game One, won 3-2 by Manchester in overtime, featured an incredible goaltending performance from Jakob Markstrom as Manchester outshot the Comets 37-17 through 64:10 of game play. Sven Baertschi and Cory Conacher had the goals for Utica while Brian O'Neill and Michael Mersch had the goals for Manchester. Mersch scored his 13th goal of the playoffs in overtime for the win.

Game Two featured another Manchester onslaught of shots as they finished the game with a 39-25 advantage in shots while winning Game Two by a 2-1 score in overtime. Again, Markstrom was the big story as he made several saves of the rather spectacular variety. However, goals by Zach O'Brien and Nic Dowd, who scored the winner at 5:36 of the extra frame, paced Manchester to the win. Nicklas Jensen has the marker for Utica who fell behind 2-0 in the series with the loss.

What's even more remarkable about the series? In the two overtime periods, Utica is being outshot 11-1 and has been outshot 19-9 in the third period by the Monarchs. I don't know how much it affects a team or influences the outcome, but being outshot 30-10 in the final 50 minutes of regulation over two games spells doom in my books. Utica needs to find a way to start preventing a lot of that rubber from reaching Markstrom while directing more at Monarchs goalie Jean-Francois Berube.

Moving On Up

It was no secret that the Red Wings were seriously considering Jeff Blashill as their next bench boss, and the Red Wings confirmed that he will take over the Red Wings' coaching duties on Tuesday after having spent the last three seasons leading the Grand Rapids Griffins to unparalleled success. To say what the 41 year-old did was anything but remarkable would be an understatement.

The Griffins hadn't made the playoffs in three seasons prior to Blashill being named as the new head coach of the Griffins. In three seasons, he compiled a record of 134-71-12-11, averaged 97 points per season, won two Midwest Division titles, missed a third title by a single point, and became the first Griffins coach to have teams qualify for the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. He won the Calder Cup Championship in 2013, led his team to another Western Conference Final, and was 29-21 in playoff games and 7-2 in playoff series. He was the 2013-14 Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award winner as AHL coach of the year, coached in the 2014 AHL All-Star Game, and sent 24 players to the NHL from his Griffins squads. All of this in just three seasons.

Again, it should have been an elementary decision for Detroit's Ken Holland because Jeff Blashill, who also won a USHL championship and led the NCAA's Western Michigan Mustangs back to the NCAA Frozen Four tournament, is a proven winner. Clearly.

Who Gets The Griffins?

Replacing Blashill will now be a much tougher choice for Holland to make as there's an expectation that has been set. And while no one expects the second coming of Blashill, there are some good coaches still out there who are looking for work as well as some who could be promoted from other areas of the hockey world.

According to George Malik over at Kukla's Korner, there are as many as six possible candidates that the Red Wings are considering. Those names include former Griffins and Oilers coach Todd Nelson, current Toledo Walleye coach Derek Lalonde, current Canucks assistant coach Mike Sullivan, and Erie Otters coach Kris Knoblauch. I wouldn't be surprised if Ken Holland reached out to current Rangers assistant coach and former Manitoba Moose head coach Scott Arniel, but I'm not sure Arniel would walk away from the Rangers unless they make a big push for him. In any case, there are some big names in play for Ken Holland and the Griffins.

Marlies Go Junior

The Toronto Marlies were looking to fill their head coach vacancy, and they went back to the OHL for their choice. Sheldon Keefe is the new head coach in AHL Toronto after coaching the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the last three seasons. Keefe was named as both the CHL and OHL Coach of the Year after leading the Greyhounds to an OHL-best 54-12-0-2 record and a franchise-best 110 points this past season. Prior to his time in Sault Ste. Marie, Keefe was the head coach and general manager of the CCHL's Pembroke Lumber Kings where he helped the team to five straight championships and the 2011 RBC Cup.

Keefe joins an incredible influx of OHL front office talent in the Leafs organization. Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas, Lindsay Hofford, and Jim Paliafito have all left OHL positions to join the Leafs, and there are reports that Brandon's Kelly McCrimmon will join them in the coming weeks from the WHL. If the Leafs are preaching development, they have grabbed some of the best names available from the junior ranks. Whether or not it pays off will be seen in the coming years.

Game Four Goalies

As I watch Game Four of the Stanley Cup Final, there is no sight of Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop on the bench. Instead, the Lightning have opted to go with two men who spent time in the AHL this year to protect their net as Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis don the blue-and-white tonight. In a rather interesting jersey note, the 88 and 50 worn by the two netminders might be the highest combined total for jersey numbers for netminders in any Stanley Cup Final game ever. And they may have the longest combined last names for a tandem at 21 letters as well.

Vasilevskiy played 25 games with the AHL's Syracuse Crunch before replacing Evgeni Nabokov as Tampa Bay's backup netminder. He was an impressive 14-6-5 in the AHL with a .917 save percentage, two shutouts, and a 2.45 GAA. After getting promoted, Syracuse turned to Kristers Gudlevskis who had backed up Vasilevskiy in Syracuse, and the Latvian netminder didn't miss a beat in taking over for Vasilevskiy. Gudlevskis went 25-14-4 with a .900 save percentage, two shutouts, and a 2.81 GAA. And now these two men, who started the season with Syracuse in the AHL, could be Tampa Bay's last line of defence in their quest for the Stanley Cup depending on the severity of the injury to Ben Bishop.

Hear that? It's opportunity knocking.

I'm going back to watching the game, folks, so that's all for tonight. Keep your eyes on Game Three of the Calder Cup Finals as well as Manchester and Utica are battling! Utica leads 3-2 late in Game Three, so there will be more updates next week on Antler Banter!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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